A Reflection on Anthropomorphic Language

We worship God for the greatness of his mysterious grace in speaking to us—not because he condescended in human language and life, but because language and life themselves have divine roots.

It is here that God draws our attention to the response we should have to his revelation, be it literal, metaphorical, anthropomorphic, or incarnational: worship. We worship God for the greatness of his mysterious grace in speaking to us—not because he condescended in human language and life, but because language and life themselves have divine roots. They are gifts. Why would God give such gifts to us? I do not know. I cannot know. But I can worship him for such gifts because they reveal the inexhaustible truth of salvation, of what God has come down to do for sinners.

 

Currently, amidst the Reformed discussion concerning God’s simplicity and immutability, there has been repeated references to the anthropomorphic language of Scripture. It is commonly understood that language attributing human emotions or physical features to God is not meant to be understood “literally.” A typical example is Deuteronomy 26:8, “And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.” God does not have physical body parts, so such language is immediately classified as anthropomorphic and seldom given a second thought. The same goes for a passage that attributes emotion to God, such as Genesis 6:6, “And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Certain theologians claim that God cannot experience emotion in any way, because that would suggest that he undergoes change or is affected by creation. This, it is claimed, would compromise the Creator-creature distinction by making God somehow dependent on the world he has made. In such cases, the anthropomorphic language of Scripture has become a sort of throwaway, a means of dismissing semantic possibilities that do not accord with particular historical or confessional understandings of God. My aim here is not to address the concerns of the current debate directly, but to raise a question that may reorient us to God’s divine purposes in using human language.

Is the way in which many theologians treat anthropomorphic language, as a tool that God uses to convey something that cannot be taken “literally” (whatever that means), a helpful way of processing this language? To me, the approach seems to assume a fairly shallow view of the nature of language and God’s purposes for it. More specifically, it misses the worship we should give to God in response to reading it. Let me explain this after examining the concept of anthropomorphic language itself.

Anthropomorphic language is often treated as a unique instance in which God speaks to us in covenantal condescension. He comes down to our level and communicates something in terms that we can readily understand. This seems relatively simple, but there is a lot of mystery and complexity here that goes overlooked.

First, consider the fact that all language is anthropomorphic. All human language with reference to God is an occasion wherein the infinite is related to the finite. In revealing himself to us, God always speaks anthropomorphically. Human language is just as much a part of being human as is having body parts or emotions. There is a profound sense in which, from the very outset of Scripture, God speaks anthropomorphically. He uses human language to express something of his infinite love, wisdom, and divine intentionality.

Second, labeling language as anthropomorphic does nothing to explain such language. It appears to explain it, but the question that I do not see being asked is this, “Why did God choose to use this language?” Surely, if God wanted to speak to us in a more literal manner, he could have done so. God is the author of Scripture, and it is he who chose to reveal himself in this way. Why? Why use poetic and metaphorical language—of arms and hands and emotions—rather than language that is plainer? In other words, what is God’s intention for using this language?

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